What are expat traditions? Well, one of the best things about living overseas for me is picking up new traditions and joining in different celebrations.
I love this cultural mash up – or rather, a pick and mix of traditions
I have written before about the fact that our family is monocultural – my husband and I were born and brought up in the UK – but our expat kids have had a childhood living in the UK, Thailand and now Germany. Their experience of traditions are so different to what I experienced growing up.
This was made very clear to me at school last week. My youngest daughter and her two friends had made a book about different celebrations. Each page had a beautiful picture and a description of each holiday. These covered Thanksgiving, the 4th of July (my daughter has never been to the US) St Martin’s Day, Christmas, and Loy Kratong, which is Thai.
I loved the fact that the children were learning about each other’s traditions, as well as the celebrations that we are all experiencing here in Germany.
Essentially this is what we try to do as a family – learn about new traditions, while keeping our own. Or trying to. Along the way some things get dropped…or adapted.
Our Christmas Tree
In the UK we would always have a real Christmas tree, which we would carefully select at the Garden Centre, and then my husband would insist on carrying it home over his shoulder. A bit of tradition making right there… Anyway, as is often the expat refrain… ‘and then we moved’.
I figured that real Christmas trees would not be easy to come by in Bangkok.. I also knew that we would be away for Christmas (yes I am probably more practical than romantic…but no-one wants the tradition of returning home from Christmas to a sad and withered brown tree, right?!). So we bought a fake tree.
And the fake tree has now been decorated in the UK, Bangkok and Germany. For me, it symbolises our expat lives. It’s a compromise (I would really prefer a real tree) but one that is worth it (we get to go home and see our family).
Every year we have bought new decorations from wherever we were living We have a Union Jack teapot, Thai white elephants. A Tuk-tuk. A beautiful engraved New York scene that a friend bought for our girls. A gherkin from Germany (not sure why?), a Frieda Kahlo. And this year we got a mermaid – which has no significance other than my daughter loves mermaids and we got it at our local Christmas market.
We don’t have an angel or a star at the top, but a silver bell. Because we made do with this before we had a family (mainly because I couldn’t find the ‘right’ angel) and now ‘ringing in Christmas’ is a tradition our kids love. So that’s the thing about expat traditions – you take something, you make it your own. It might be because you are compromising, or making do – but they are often the things that are the most memorable.
Given that I am not American, it’s no surprise that we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. And for me it’s a celebration that elicits a lot of questions – what’s it really all about? As a British person, I feel very conscious of our colonial past being far from laudable – so I guess that’s what gives me pause.
But before I get all principled, I have to add that we had never been invited to a Thanksgiving celebration (hmm, wonder why??!). This year one of our good friends – who also happens to be an incredible cook – asked us to share their Thanksgiving meal.
Because, as she explained it, this was a celebration of friends, family and people sharing a meal together. And we were so happy to be part of it. The celebration that is, not the meal (anyone seen The Addams Family Values? ‘Eat us, it’s Thanksgiving Day…’). Anyway, I digress.
This was a joyous celebration of friendship and food. I love how the traditional meal is similar to our Christmas dinner – but different. Hello sweet potato and pumpkin pie! Although our family decided we are definitely in the pecan pie camp…
I loved the fact that we were welcomed into a friend’s home and invited to share their traditions with them. Or, as her very cute son said, ‘We’re sharing transmissions’!
For our friends, being away from family at Thanksgiving is hard. Not being able to get all the right ingredients to recreate favourite dishes is annoying. So we were a rag tag bunch of Americans, Brits, Aussies and Germans. And we all had something to give thanks for – not least enjoying being together.
So I think this will go into our cultural pick and mix bag – the idea of opening up our home to friends to get together and show our appreciation for each other and for all the good things in our lives. And if it also makes us reflect together on difficult subjects in our world – well, that’s a good thing too.
So I guess this expat tradition would be a ‘Friendsgiving’ – which I did just look up to check if it was a thing. It is, invented by the series ‘Friends’…another cultural mash up. Just avoid looking at the definition that pops up in the Urban Dictionary. Gross…
In the UK Christmas Day is the big day, when children wake up and check to see if Father Christmas has delivered their gifts.
Here in Germany there is also Saint Nikolaus, who is dressed in a red robe with a bishop’s mitre and staff. On the evening on the 5th December children leave a shoe out for him and, if they are lucky, they wake up to find them filled with chocolates, sweets and fruit.
Unsurprisingly, this is a tradition children love so it’s probably one we will export with use, although I think traditionally it is only celebrated in the North of France.
Let’s just hope St Niklaus does a better job of remembering to fill the shoes than the Tooth Fairy did collecting the tooth last month…
Bonfire Night is a British celebration on the 5th November – and it’s not one we have continued with. Having a bonfire and setting off fireworks on any night other than New Year’s Eve would not go down well in Germany. And explaining this tradition to non-Brits can be tricky…’So, you basically celebrate a foiled terrorist plot then?’
But interestingly, at around the same time, Germans celebrate the feast of St Martin. St Martin was a Roman soldier who became a monk as an adult. He was made a saint after he cut his cloak in half and shared it with a beggar. Every year on the 11th November towns all over Germany have parades of children carrying lanterns and singing…and then there is a bonfire.
So I wonder if originally there is a pagan root of these bonfires at the start of November?
Regardless, we definitely need to brush up a bit on our British history. My daughter wrote about bonfire night in her book at school…apparently it wasn’t Guy Fawkes who plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament. According to her, it was Usain Bolt…
Loi, Loi Krathong….
Loi Krathong is Thailand’s ‘Festival of Lights’, celebrated at the 12th new moon. So, around the same time as Bonfire Night/ St Martins. We loved this festival – the ‘krathongs’ are usually beautifully made with banana leaves, flowers and candles. ‘Loi’ literally means ‘to float’.
As you float the krathong on the water you wash away the old year and make wishes for the new – and the sight of all the lit krathongs floating is pretty spectacular.
Again, we haven’t been able to continue this – hard to find krathongs in Germany and again, I think we’d get in trouble floating things out on the ornamental lakes here. But the song ‘Loi, loi krathong’ is still regularly sung by my kids…nearly as often as the St Martins’ ‘Lanterne’ song.
We aren’t Jewish but, going to a multi-cultural International school, my girls have been singing songs about Hannukah – and Diwali and Eid.
Tonight went over to a friend’s house to light the Menorah with them…along with some friends who FaceTimed in from the UK (gotta love FaceTime!). It was so nice to be part of this and for us to hear the story behind it. I didn’t admit it to my friend, but I did get a tear in my eye listening to him sing the prayer as he lit the candles.
And I think this is what I am grateful for – being invited into people’s homes, from different countries and cultures, and being invited to share with them. Because that’s what celebrating should be all about, right?
So, what do you take to a Menorha lighting at a friend’s house own Germany when you are British and Catholic? Well, the answer to every food conundrum for us at this time of year – mince pies!
We made these as thank you gifts for the teachers at school and they went down a treat – and it’s always fun to explain that there’s no meat in them..
So this is another tradition – to make mince pies while listening to Christmas songs and then to eat them at every possible opportunity. Because we can’t buy them here they seem more special (and homemade always tastes better). And they go great with gluwein, obviously.
The last of my expat traditions
This is one I’d like to give up but can’t. And this maybe just me – but every year I like to get super stressed about packing everything up for Christmas. You know, just to add to the festive cheer. And then, as the bags lay unpacked I decide to bake a cake. You know, priorities. And maybe just write one more blog post….
So, this is that post. And there’s the timer on the oven pinging …
Wherever you’re celebrating, whatever your traditions, the most important thing is in the sharing and just being together. As the cliché goes – ‘Presence, not Presents’.
Enjoy the holidays, wherever you are – and I hope you get to select something new for your own cultural pick and mix.